We had made it past Babylon without any major confusion, a sublime morning sun shining through the train windows, but now we were being held in Patchogue. At first, this didn’t bother us and we kept on yakking: Alice and I, two German women who couldn’t wait to escape suffocating streets of broken relationship dreams (in my case) and bitchy co-workers (in Alice’s case); and to seek oblivion and freedom by diving into sparkling, mesmerizing Atlantic waves, letting the wind detox our hearts and souls. It was about time, considering the fact that by mid August, after an exhausting July, summer seemed weakened and about to come tumbling down, preparing to draw its last breath any time soon.
After a while we realized that we were still standing in the station, and then, it didn’t take long until the first announcement came crackling through the loudspeakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are being held due to police activity east off Bellport. We will keep you informed as soon as we have further information.”
The doors remained closed, which we took for a sign that the ominous police activity would not interfere with our beach plans, and that we would be moving shortly. It was not the case: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are being held due to police activity east off Bellport—a passenger got hit by a train and we can’t estimate yet when we will be moving again. Please be patient.”
A passenger got hit by a train. From the faces you could tell that everyone in the car had the same thought: On this splendid summer morning, someone’s life had ended, in one of the most brutal possible ways, making sure that there would be no point of return to the world of waves and wind and redemption.
Outside, flowers were blooming neatly, in the typical pink, purple, and white mix that often enhances train stations in the countryside. The air was pure and fresh, and the sun quickly ascended in a blue sky that was scattered sparsely with flimsy cumulus while, just a few miles farther east, police activity involved cleaning up tracks, investigating a now obsolete identity, and preparing for a conversation on some relative’s porch, somewhere just off Bellport.
“Damn it, this is going to take some time,” said the distinguished gray-haired bachelor in a pink polo shirt and checkered dress shorts in the seat next to us as he leaned forward to two young blonde women who were hectically typing on their phones. “You won’t make it to the wedding reception, ladies, forget about it,” he said, before grabbing his own phone. He was right, as the next voice said: “Ladies and gentlemen, this train ends here. All passengers please get off the train. Shuttle buses will be organized and will arrive in approximately 45 minutes.”
Masses of frustrated travelers poured into the parking lot in front of the station. The phone/net activity was sizzling. The sun was getting hotter. Summer was not yet over. People were upset. They wanted to enjoy life, so why did that jackass have to kill himself today, and why did he have to do it then and there? Other voices, greasy with self-righteous, moral indignation, became loud. They accused the majority of us of being egoistic. Someone had just died and all we wanted to do was hang out at the beach? Honestly, this was exactly what I wanted to do: Hang out at a Long Island beach—at a real shore, and not at one of those mediocre city beaches I had been frequenting lately. I had been dreaming about doing this since I was young, and during the past year, I specifically had been dreaming about doing it with a man for whom today, even the term “ex-lover” seems inapplicable. Now, I was about to do it with Alice. And we were being held in Patchogue? “Damn it, Alice. Isn’t it ironic?” We looked at each other and then we laughed, the way you laugh when you can’t change anything, anyway.
We sat on the curb of the sidewalk, with our plans mixed up and without any commitments. We felt thankful that the city and its unfulfilled memories, daunting dead ends and mobbing colleagues, was far away. The future was wide open. I felt like I did when I was traveling across Europe by train some twenty years ago, and we would be stranded in forgotten one-horse-towns in France or Portugal, from which the last train for the day had already left, and we had to adapt to the circumstances and improvise. I felt the warm and rough asphalt beneath the palms of my hands. This was going to be a fun adventure. As long as we make it to the beach at some point. “And I don’t care, if we don’t get there until late, we are going to pay them their damn 300 dollars per night, I’m serious.” I was happy Alice was here. I hadn’t been traveling with anyone for a long time, and this was even better because we were on the same page.
But on a Saturday morning around 10:00 am, LIRR was utterly overwhelmed by the task of organizing the sufficient amount of buses needed to transport a whole trainload of demanding passengers to their various destinations. Eventually, after 45 minutes, the first bus showed up. A local bus, it was clearly not for us, but people still headed toward it as if it were a UN helicopter with the mission to fly us out of a disaster zone.
“Imagine this was about life or death here,” Alice said. “People would have already started beating each other up.” A hostile crowd surrounded the bus and steadfastly stared at the closed doors, when a school bus arrived on the other end of the parking lot and generated more justified expectations. The mass shifted quickly, and some women were actually running with their rolling travel bags bouncing behind them and their purses constantly sliding off their shoulders. The driver stood in the door and laughed as he looked down at us: “I don’t know what this bus is for. I don’t think it’s for you. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.”
Finally, the station manager appeared, with a bunch of copies of the “LIRR Emergency Plan” in her short, white fingers. She sighed and began talking to whoever stood next to her. “You know, this is complicated. Where am I supposed to get all the buses from? And it’s Saturday, nobody wants to work, it seems.” She looked onto her emergency plan, which had all kinds of diagrams printed on it. If nothing else, it sure made for a good PowerPoint presentation. Confused, she soon disappeared. A North Fork Express then showed up. It made a huge, wide turn, people following in its invisible wake like lemmings. Then it left again.
In the meantime, some determined and proactive young men had called cabs— apparently, there were only two for hire at the moment. While their girlfriends hid their annoyed eyes behind oversized black sunglasses, I heard one of the confident American guys say, “It’s 200 bucks to Montauk. We need three more people.”
Simultaneously, the other remaining cab was besieged by two energetic movers and shakers, who argued about who had been there first, and did not consider sharing the fare. “Come on, darling, let’s go,” one of them finally commanded, ignoring his adversary who shook his head in disbelief, with his mouth half open. Without the slightest movement in her face, one of the many indistinguishable blonds in a baby blue blouse, white shorts and pink sandals emerged from the crowd, climbed into the cab, and shut the door. And off they went. “Is there anyone who wants to go to Montauk?!?” the first, less solvent guy, screamed. “We want to go to Southampton,” I said. “Yeah, but we’re going to Montauk,” he snapped and left me standing. Oh well, I thought. We might need that money later on anyway.
“Southampton and East Hampton! Southampton and East Hampton, only!” That was the driver from the school bus, the only bus that had shown up so far. Southampton and East Hampton, ONLY! Jesus. They had been filling up the bus and we hadn’t been aware of it. Now we, too, ran. Some people had to leave the bus again, as it wasn’t serving their destination. “Why are you taking the yuppies first?” a family father grumbled while he was stepping down the stairs. The driver smiled. “I am not commenting and I ain’t gonna comment on this. But you know that Bill Cosby was performing in the Westhampton Theater yesterday night?” Nobody listened to him. Alice and I stood stuck in a slow—far too slow—line. I concentrated on the back of the huge man in front of us who had been paralyzed for eons, while people from the sides would walk into the bus. Move. Move. Move! All the seats were already taken. They wouldn’t let us in anymore. But they did. The driver continued talking about Bill Cosby, while we boarded the bus and ended up crammed in the aisle like in a train at rush hour. Then the driver finally stepped inside, too. We had been right on time, almost too late. “Okay, fifth graders, are we all set? You behave well and I’ll try and get you to Southampton in less than an hour. Is that a deal?”
Yep, that sounded like a deal, but no one could be bothered to smile. All were busily typing on their phones; well-educated girls with impeccable makeup covering their bored faces, squeezed onto a seat with two identical-looking friends who couldn’t find anything romantic about this unforeseen trip back into childhood. When we rolled out of the parking lot, it was still crowded with people. They watched us in a mix of despair and wrath. The UN helicopter was leaving without them. No more yellow buses had shown up. And the LIRR representative with her emergency manual was nowhere to be seen.
Soon enough, our day at the beach would arrive. Powerful, salty, cool waves turned us upside down. We actually managed to swim. We saw wooden fences in the dunes and beautiful hibiscus blooming abundantly in the reeds and swaying in the breeze. We worked on our tans and had a lobster roll for lunch. We passed out in the sun and took happy pictures of us, with seagulls and surfers in the background. Unbelievable that this was still the same day. Hadn’t we been traveling for at least a month? This day, which had seen police activity in Bellport and emergency plans in Patchogue, now brought us instant, soothing healing and we couldn’t remember what we had ever worried about. Scars fade under the silken massage of an indifferent Atlantic wind, don’t they? A seed began to grow in our fantasies, and we both knew it before Alice finally turned her head towards me:
“I don’t want to leave here.”
“I don’t want to leave, either,” I answered. “I don’t want to go back to Scheiß New York,” Alice said. “Let’s stay,” I said. Spray dripped onto my body. A seagull sailed above us. Another wave smashed. Alice laughed. “Oh, Julia, this is too crazy. But I don’t care.”
In case you don’t know, it is an ambitious decision to spend the night in Southampton on an August weekend. But little did we know just how ambitious was this plan that had already spread its rhizomes into our hearts.
While walking back to the city center, we uprooted and replanted our Southampton weekend plans back and forth and forth and back. “Tomorrow Tompkins Square again. We can get a tan there, too.” Right. How can you taste freedom and then go back to prison again? How can you get an idea of intimacy and then be sent back to brooding loneliness? It’s hard to die when all the birds are singing in the sky. “Forget Tompkins Square. You don’t want to go there, anyway.” Alice was right. Bad associations. “Okay, let’s see if we find something around $250.”
We paused at the terrace of a restaurant on Main Street and ordered two glasses of rosé. Our hair was thick from the seawater, and our skin smelled of sun lotion and sweat. The women who strolled along the sidewalk wore fluffy white and turquoise tunicas. Their hair was thoroughly arranged, an air of perfume and body mist floating around them, and their peculiarly shaved legs looked as shiny as their nails. They were all in the company of hazel-brown tanned, tall men with light red or orange baseball caps on their mussed hair and dressed in tidy, checkered shirts and khaki shorts, their delicately pedicured feet bedded in leather sandals. Promising boys in white polo shirts and succulent girls in cute pink dresses followed them. We were calling the numbers on the short list of hotels the waitress had compiled for us, and I once more regretted that I still had not bought a BlackBerry, or an iPhone, for that matter.
“You know, I hardly ever feel envious, but right now... They all have someone, and they all have a place to go to and spend the night here.” Alice was right, again. We were not having any success in our search for a hotel, and the past had not been swept away just like that. This became clear to me even more so as the shadows on Main Street grew longer. That same day was my “ex-lover’s” birthday, and there were still a few hours left. But did I really want to expose myself to this vicious circle again? I had closed the door and felt safe, albeit sad: There was a chance he was out here, too; just a couple of miles away. I watched the pink and orange clouds in the intense blue sky. After all, it was his birthday. But I would wait for his response. He might ignore me like we had ignored each other the night before at the Kronos Quartet concert. Tick, tack. He might answer something mean. Tick, tack. He might answer something politely indifferent. Tick, tack. He might answer something nice, and I would be dreaming about a day at a Long Island beach with him, and not enjoying what was left of the day with Alice. Tick. No, I wasn’t going to text him. Tack. Too many things had happened and we were past the point of no return. Tick. Our time slot was exhausted.
Now, it was time to catch the last train. Since all the hotels we had reached were sold out or followed a strict two-night minimum policy, which was far beyond our already generously estimated budget, we had treated ourselves to a dinner feast and a nice bottle of rosé and accepted our fate: The train back to New York. We walked to the station.
“There are only trains to Montauk.” We were standing at the platform and stared at the panel, incredulous. “It will come, I’m sure,” Alice said. “Uh, but look, there is no train going to Jamaica,” I replied as I unfolded the paper schedule. “Oh boy, we screwed it up. We missed the last train. The one we wanted to take only runs on Sundays and holidays.” Alice looked at me in surprise and said, “I’m drunk.”
We were stranded in Southampton, the luxurious version of a forgotten one-horse town in France or Portugal. We had not met any handsome big spenders to spend the night with in their double king-sized beds. We had been willing to pay 300 dollars for a room—we were no teenage Eurail travelers any more—but the rules and regulations made outcasts of people who only could afford one night. We had reluctantly made our peace with going back to the city on the last train, but had misread the schedule.
“Miss, need a cab?” Yeah, to New York. It would have been 200 dollars to go to Montauk from Patchogue, so what would that ride cost? And why pay hundreds of dollars to go back to a mattress in a tenement building close to Tompkins Square, or to a single bed in Queens, while passing up another day at the beach?
We looked at each other and laughed, although a little confused. It was still only around 10, so I said “Let’s have another drink.”
We entered Madame Tong, apparently a fashionable club with a dance floor, and sat down at the bar. Despite our beach bags, they had let us in, but then, they ignored us. Eventually, the bartender glanced at us. “Two Pinot Grigio please, and, wait, wait, wait! Could you help us maybe, please?” We told him what had happened and asked if he could think of another place where we could try to get a room. And no, we didn’t have a smart phone. He passed us over to the floor manager, who was a handsome young man, but he was a floor manager, after all, and really busy, or so he told us. Still, he would see what he could do for us. After a long while—our glasses were long empty, but the bartender hadn’t shown the slightest interest in asking us if we were all good— we got hold of the floor manager again. “Ah you know, I don’t want you guys to pay 250 bucks per night. There is still the Hampton Jitney going back, at 11:30. You can catch this bus.” Before he ran off again, I asked: “But where is it leaving from?” He pointed vaguely into a direction. “You know, I personally don’t take the Hampton Jitney, but every cab driver will know. Good luck.”
Outside, there was no cab anymore. We asked the valet parking guys if they knew where the Jitney was leaving from. Negative. We asked the Russian drivers who were waiting in the fat black SUVs in the parking lot. At first, they thought we asked them to take us to the city and declined, because they had clients living it up on the dance floor of Madame Tong’s. They didn’t know where the Jitney was leaving from, either. And no one around who looked friendly enough to quickly browse the internet with their smart phone. We called a cab. We had the number, at least that we had. “Twenty minutes,” the woman said. “Wait, wait, wait!” I guess I sounded a little more panicked than I wanted to. But she had hung up already. I dialed again. “It's just to tell you that we need to catch the Hampton Jitney, so if the cab comes in twenty minutes it may be too late.” “Don’t panic, silly,” she answered, indignantly.
We waited in front of the station. We asked the couples who walked by on their way to their cars if they knew where the Hampton Jitney was leaving from. Of course, they didn’t. We waited another ten minutes, until it was 11:30. It was ridiculous. Not in the remotest places in Africa had I ever felt so lost like in this hermetically fenced off Long Island village. We looked at each other, again. We still laughed. But we were worried. Nights were getting colder already, and we didn’t want to be picked up by the local police for loitering and sleeping in public parks or on the porches of one of the abandoned mansions that were for sale on Elm Street. We were in the Hamptons, facing homelessness and embarrassment.
From inside the waiting room of the station came a mellow, yellow light. Purple, pink, and white flowers were growing in boxes outside the windows. We tried the door. It was open. It was warm inside. There was even a fireplace, and a restroom! And the waiting area was for ticketed passengers, only. Which we were—yay, good for us!
The night was better than one would have expected. We actually didn’t care how many people would see us while they were waiting to catch the 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. trains to Montauk and drunkenly make fun of our slumber party. Around 4 a.m., a young man with a bike entered the Southampton Station Inn, as Alice had baptized our shelter for the night. When he saw us, he walked out again. Eventually, reluctantly, he came back inside, laid down on another wooden bench and soon began snoring. His presence turned the Station Inn into something like a youth hostel dormitory, but we pretended we hadn’t seen him, and he did the same to us.
We awoke to the sound of the first morning train rumbling into the station, then headed out in search of coffee and breakfast. We met a family father who was pushing a stroller: “Just arrived on the 7:34?” “Yes,” we replied, as we headed out for another day of wind, waves, and redemption.